Be Careful Who You Call a Hero

Reading the news the past few weeks has been a sobering reminder to me that we use the term “hero” way too casually. Sometimes it’s because we call people heroes for the strangest reasons (for example, winning an all-you-can-eat contest probably doesn’t qualify you as being a hero …). Other times it’s because we assume people who belong to certain categories must be heroic.

super hero photoPhoto by JD Hancock

If you were paying attention the past few weeks, we learned (again) that not all soldiers are heroes. One Air Force instructor has been convicted of several accounts of sexual assault against female instructees, and quite a few others are still facing charges. It is the most dangerous form of patriotism to assume that everyone who puts on the uniform does so for the right reasons, and then acts honorably and justly while in the uniform. Soldiers are not automatically heroes.

We also learned (again) that not all sports figures are heroes.  The continuing fallout from the situation at Penn State has shocked and saddened all who have been following it, I think.  Joe Paterno, whose mantra was “success with honor,” has had both of those words stripped from his legacy in many ways as of late. Certainly, if the Freeh report is accurate, no amount of football players invested in or libraries built can make up for allowing the destruction of vulnerable, young lives.  Even his “success” has been hit hard as he had 111 wins taken away from his officially tally, making him no longer the winningest coach in Division I history. Beloved sports figures — especially the remarkably successful ones — get too much of a free pass in our society. Players and coaches are not automatically heroes.

The murder trial of Drew Peterson and a recent decision by the New Orleans Police Department to accept federal oversight and correction remind us (again) that not all police officers are heroes, either. (I’ll let you read up on those stories yourself with the handy-dandy links I provided).

To be clear, I want to live in a world that has heroes … and I think I do! Also, I am not suggesting that the stories I mentioned above are typical representatives of the men and women in each of those groups. However, I do think it is incredibly dangerous to assume that because someone fills a role that we might see as noble — or even heroic — that he or she is thus obviously noble or heroic as an individual. When we give free passes to our military, our athletes, or our police officers (or any other group, for that matter!) we set ourselves up for disaster.

Again, I don’t want to live in a society so cynical that it has no heroes. Instead, I want to live in a society so sober and circumspect that it knows when and to whom to apply the label.